Skip to content

. . .why africa? Ghana.

The following thoughts, impressions and emotive translations are from teaching-assistants and students that are an intricate part of the Ghana 2012 travel studio with Professor James Chaffers.

Each person was asked to write about their personal and group experiences over a specific 3-4 day span of time while traveling in Ghana.

Please enjoy and reflect as you read; while taking a mere glimpse of Ghana. . .


ghana studio group collaborating in ann arbor


……….May 6th – May 10th – Damon D.……….

Destination. . .Ghana.

a visit to independence square in the capital city

No camera’s just yet. . .we all seemed to simply take in the thick-warmth and smells of the aromatic air while we waited for transportation to Accra’s KNUST (KwameNkrumahUniversity of Science & Technology) guesthouse. Two teaching assistants and Professor Amegatcher met us with smiles, welcoming words and the highly anticipated Ghanaian [hand-shake] on behalf of KNUST’s school of architecture in Kumasi.

We scattered amongst four floors with luggage in-hand; and [got on] with the first order of business…NO it wasn’t a shower after a terrifically long flight. . . it WASN’T grabbing the first pillow either. . . it WAS posing a simple question; “what is the wi-fi password”? Communicated safe arrival to loved ones and…

Good Morning Accra; ahhhhh…sunny, 75-degrees (or so) and beautiful.

Rip the sleeve of my Nes Café Coffee pack while waiting on the expected goodness of a ‘Spanish omelet’ with toast and sweet marmalade; these tasty treats have prepared us for a significant wait-time at the [new] U.S. embassy to straighten out last minute visa logistics.

I must have checked-in to the Embassy at least 7-times in order to ‘smuggle’ almonds and dried mango to Adja, Ning and TongTong. While we waited; me, Laura and Phillip cruised on auto-pilot for a bit, holding brief conversations with Embassy officials and perusing sundry readings in their work/study rooms. After a relatively short period of time waiting, the group was back together again to sort out our next order of business…

Our purchasing power at this point is in need of some serious attention. So, to a currency exchange facility; which was tucked neatly away in a small, quiet single level shopping ‘village’ surrounded by the city and trees and appeared to be an area…

…where neatly dressed school children cut-through to make their way home. They were surprised to see me with back-pack in hand (and no blue uniform), pencil gripped between my teeth and fumbling for my camera.

ning saying hello to young ladies coming from school

We ‘rubber-banded our stacks’ and move out. Our first conscious dinner 30,000 feet below our last…pizza…we know we know…all this way for pizza…the next day…

…we made up for this culinary faux pas…

…with Ghanaian specialties for lunch after grabbing post cards in an Accra shopping district…

Back to lunch…Yams, minced carrots with meat, Red-Red w/fried plantains, fufu, fresh Snapper with shitu and ice cold Fanta Orange…don’t depend solely on Google Images. You gotta taste it…

After visiting James Town; Ussher Castle specifically; a couple of us realized we could be…

…creating our own post cards from our ocean view vantage points. Camera shots between 18th century rustic banisters, clicking away at white-caps and reappropriated ruins left behind by colonial-masters and so on…

…all of this composed on durable 5×3 paper could definitely be mailed to a loved one or friend with newly bought Kwame Nkhrumah stamps.

post-card moment at ussher castle in accra

My New Balances were strapped on tight for my first run in Ghana. . .

…my pace began to slow after 25-min of running because I realized I was lost. This was a quick and interesting lesson in paying close attention to land-marks. My non-existent-photographic-memory picked up on ornamented walls with Ghanaian Adinkra symbols. The sight of recognized ‘beacons’ gave me courage to hasten my pace and finish strong at a total of 33-minutes…

…the run was only suppose to be 15-minutes.

I’m still looking for an Adinkra symbol that means ‘lost and found’ .  .   .

running on red earth

Our first round of significant gift purchasing happened at the –>

Artist Village in Accra; which was a timely respite from the city’s hustle and bustle.

The “Village” consists of three modest round-wooden structures, with one being two-levels. Taking in the surrounding area, I noticed small colorful structures that housed small businesses and non-profits such as health insurance, painters and an orphanage.As I walked and covered new territory; Adja was introducing a “one-minute sketch” idea to all of the students which pushed all of us to observe, engage and communicate environment quickly.

implementing the “one-minute” sketch

Our experience here culminated with a fruitful conversation with Ms. Bridget, the Art Village’s Director, who urged us all to create…

…designs that preserve long-lasting generational connections  .   .    .

……….May 11th – May 14th – Laura S.……….


Our first full day in Kumasi we took two taxis from the KNUST campus to the central market area. The first cab, which I was in, arrived after a few minutes, but we discovered the second driver was taking a much longer route.

As four of us stood there in the incredibly hot, direct sun, a woman selling goods out of a basket she carried on her head walked by…

…Tongtong asked if she had any water. The woman did not, but offered to go buy some water for Tongtong at a store nearby instead. Adja gave the stranger some Ghana cedis, the woman took the basket off her head, and she asked a street vendor she didn’t know to watch her things before walking away. A minute later she returned with cold water and change for Adja, asking for nothing in return. The street vendor helped her load her basket back onto her head, Adja said “may God give you more work” in [Twi], and with a nod the woman continued on her way.

The event happened so quickly and so naturally that such acts of generosity may be considered “normal” in Ghana, but for me the various levels of trust and acts of kindness that happened between people whom had never met was amazing. We spent the rest of the time waiting for the other taxi to arrive sitting under an umbrella of a vendor who offered us some shade.

an ecstatic soccer team stopping to say “hello” while we wait


Later we arrived at the market and climbed a flight of stairs to view the extensive network of small tin roof stalls and walkways so packed with people that you could not see the ground. When we entered the market there was…

…an overwhelming amount of activity…

…a woman openly breast feeding in a stall where she was selling produce or two young men pulling a cart through the walkways and everyone around them negotiating to make space. When our group had to pause to recollect we often stood tightly packed inside a stall and the vendors always welcomed us even though we were not purchasing anything.

The environment was remarkable…

…but the moment that most stuck in my mind was seeing three small boys walking alone through the market in a single file. The first two were about 5 and were carrying small baskets of fruit, most likely helping their mother at work. The third must have been no older than 3 and was holding the back of his brother’s shirt with one hand and looking down as he walked, was brushing a Santa doll’s beard with the other.

Ghana seems to be a country that is built on trust so much so that people are naturally trustworthy and trusting of one another. I thought to myself that only in such a place could young children safely wander around on their own as these boys were.

moving through kumasi’s central market


On Mother’s Day we attended a service at Adja’s mega church which he co designed with another young architect. The congregation was around 1,000 people and…

…as they sang and prayed you could feel the collective spiritual energy as many of them closed their eyes and raised their hands to the sky.

After the service, which included a brief wedding ceremony, a number of songs expressing appreciation for mothers, and a sermon about being mindful with our words, the man sitting next to me put his left hand on my shoulder, held my right hand with his, and making eye contact he said…

…“My sister. You are welcome.”

mega structure with new building to the left


The next day we drove out to the suburbs of Kumasi and visited a weave masters house. Many weavings in Ghana are made on…

…intricate wooden looms that are operated using both hands and feet and the work requires extreme focus from the craftsmen.

Unfortunately the master, who had some young apprentices working for him, had lost his sight some years ago. Despite that he could no longer weave as he always had, he bravely said to us, “So is life. No one knows what will happen. I may regain my sight if God wishes it to be so.” We drove away from the compound waving to all the small children that had collected to see us and a few minutes later…

… I saw a lone sign on the side of the road hand painted in bright colors that read: “Not my might, nor my power, but my spirit.”

……….May 15th – May 18th – Ning Z.……….

We were in KUMASI and Bolgatanga!

Architecture in Ghana

Generally the cities in Ghana are not that “fancy” but very attractive. Kumasi, as the second largest city in Ghana, has its strong personality. It is so abundant in trees.

Especially on KNUST campus, we were so attractived [to] the landscape. Among these trees there are many adorable houses that are for faculty. What interested me were the different typologies of these houses for different levels of faculty. For junior professors there are “town houses” with several one-bedroom houses gathering together. For senior professors there are different independent houses usually with the separate servant houses. Through the concrete, the simple geometry without of any redundant decoration and even the color, you could tell the international style’s influence on architecture in Ghana.

However these houses also reflect how the architecture responds to the local climate. For instance, the orientation of the house, the sloping roof for drain and the holes on the wall for ventilation.

residential architecture

Besides the residences, the larger-scale buildings are also responsive to the local climate. Take the Bolgatanga regional library for example. The entire building adopts the “second roof” system. A large concrete roof covers several concrete boxes under it. And the opening between the roof and the boxes below facilitates the ventilation around the whole building. Besides, the thick concrete wall with small windows on it is also effective insulation. Moreover another…

character of Ghanaian architecture: the flowing and the blur between outdoor and interior space are well represented by this building.

bolgatanga regional library designed by the late max bond

Life in Ghana

During our stay on KNUST campus, we fortunately got the opportunity to talk with the architecture students in KNUST. We exchanged the interests and the different ideas of architecture. Generally the local students’ interests of future research or career mostly…

… focus on African identity in architecture, sustainable design, the relation between outdoor and interior space and the personality of space.

Through the talk we could know more about the local culture and the significant elements in the local architecture.

Moving, of course, took the most part of time during the travel.

We wandered around the city in Kumasi to look at the community and the commercial streets through which we got to know how the local people’s life is like.

We went to the culture center both in Kumasi and Bolgatanga browsing the crafts made by the local artists by which we knew more about the history, culture and art in Ghana. And the long trip on the bus from Kumasi to Bolgatanga is also very impressive. The temperature, the house typology and the landscape are changing along the whole way from the south to the north enabling us to know the entire country generally.

So cooool trip, coooool Ghana.

map and paths made in kumasi

……….May 19th – May 22nd – TongTong W.……….


Farmer’s Compound

The farmer’s compound we visited locates in Navrongo, a few kilometers away from Bolgatanga. Here, each family builds their own compound from mud. And the compound is divided into the animal yard and human section. The kraal, with conical shape and straw roof, locates in front; while the living room, with flat roof and round opening, locates at back. A consistent wall chains all the round or rectangular rooms together. Electricity, running water and toilet are not available.

As recorded in Wall to Wall, “The design of the houses reflects the extended family structure of the people.”

Normally, each adult has her or his own room. Men are in higher hierarchy of the family. Sons are supposed to take care of the compound and their parents while daughter would leave it after marriage.

understanding family structure


Tongo Hills

Tongo Hills, a sacred center of an ethnic group in Northern Ghana, is known for its…

… unique landscape and domestic arrangements.

According to our local guide, the popularity of Tongo Hills started from 1800s. At present…

Tongo Hills is considered one of the most important cultural sites in West Africa. Several natural caves, the chief’s compound, and the Tengzug Shrine were shown to us on the trip.

It is a pleasant adventure to climb Tongo Hills. The hills are composed of a mass of tumbled rocks, while the ground is formed of the landscape of granite rocks. Grass and trees grow through the cracks, appear vivid green, and make all carves cool. Similar to the farmer’s compound, the chief’s compound is composed of a number of round and rectangular rooms. Most of the individual rooms are one- story units made of mud while a couple of 2- 3 story buildings are made of concrete. All the units are connected by courtyards and corridors as a whole which accommodates about 348 people. The Tengzug Shrine is located at the top of a hill.

It is believed that people who visit the shrine are blessed with luck and prosperity.

touring homes and villages during the tongo hill’s experience


Bike tour in Bolga.

Bikes are everywhere in Bolga and occupy a large amount of traffic flow on the street. They act as the transportation med[ium] not only for humans but also for plenty of goods. (You could even see people place baby goats on the back of a bike.) Separate lanes are designed on many streets for push bikes and motorbikes from cars. On Sunday, after a whole rest up in the morning, we had a bike tour which covers most important areas in Downtown Bolgatanga.

The carefully selected route, including farm country roads and several main streets, extends our observation into the Northern Ghana culture and communities. This great experience is sure to be an experimental learning, an extraordinary scenic tour and a way of local live experience.

taking a picture break during our bike tour


Border Design.

After the visit to Bolga’s border with Burkina Faso, Ghana Team had a design discussion focusing on the country border. Before the country formed and border built, people live freely around the border. Afterwards, when independent countries established, people lost the freedom to flow over the border. Border residents have ethnic and cultural similarities. However, “safety” separates them by the home country. The main concept of border lies between “welcome” and “we will check you.”

This balance could be influenced by architecture, structure, landscape, lighting, equipment, infrastructure, landscape architecture etc. Several design elements are brought up as essentials, including the landscape leads people to the border office; a free area that could bring people the view of the adjacent country; entertainment places such as duty free shops, porker places, wine shops and hotels.

………..May 23rd – May 25th – Phillip Z.……….

            Let’s see…where to start?  So much has happened in the past three days, I’m not quite sure what to talk about first.  Might as well start from the beginning.  Previously we just arrived in Kumasi after an excruciating long drive from Bolgatanga.

It was day like any other…hot and humid.  But, the agenda for  the day was of course unbeknownst to us like usual, but that’s a good thing, I enjoy surprises.  Moving on, as we swerved back and forth through the chaotic yet orderly traffic we came up to a carving complex.

We entered, after obtaining permission of course, and inside was filled with the noise of men carving and playing Oware, a Ghanaian game similar to Mancala.

On top of that the area was covered in a blanket of wood chips.

To witness the carving in action was simply amazing, the accuracy of each swing was a feat on its own.

Luckily I was able to interview one of the younger carvers named Christopher, who also happened to be the son of the chief carver of the area.  He informed me, to my surprise that each carver has their own individual set of tools unique to them as well as each specializes in one item.  Such as one carver makes stools and the other makes shoe molds.  Furthermore they chop down their own trees by Volta Lake; whether that be white/red cedar, ebony, mahogany, or teak; and at times they will do their carvings in the forest.

photomontage of the carving workshop

If that wasn’t enough for one day, then you can say that the end of the day took a surprising turn of events.

Following after the carving complex, the group decided to go to a hair salon.  To my surprise, little did I know that I would soon be proposed to by one of the workers named Angelina.

Though her motives were just to obtain US citizenship and the fact that she quickly rejected me for another male (Laura’s brother), the whole ordeal was somewhat flattering I guess.

The next day was a straight drive to Cape Coast, though we stopped a bit for…

a leisurely stroll forty meters high…

… through the canopy walk at Kakum National Park.

canopy walk at kakum national park

Arriving there, Cape Coast wasn’t exactly as I imagined it, for I was told that it was filled with castles and Rastafarian men.  It seemed that I was misinformed for there were no Rastafarian men but there were castles.  We even took a tour at the Elimina Castle…

it had quite the impact and the rain definitely helped set somber mood to the whole place.

The castle originally acted as a missionary for the Portuguese, later used as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade by the Dutch, followed by the British who converted it into a training facility and finally now it acts as a museum.  With that being said, all are equally important but the tour primarily focused on the slave trade portion and its cruelty.  We were brought into both the male and female dungeons…

…it’s like the case between the male and female restroom, I can’t exactly say one is nicer than the other.

The smell from all the vomit, piss and defecation was so potent that, well I’ll just say the smell wasn’t all that pleasant.  As you can guess there was a huge disparity of equality between the Dutch governor and the slaves or soon-to-be.

photomontage of an elmina castle courtyard

With all this talk about slaves and inequality, this leads me to our talk with Dr. Wellington, an architectural professor that focuses on heritage studies.  For example Dr. Wellington examined the area of Osu a region within Accra and through his research he was able to write Stones tell Stories as Osu, a book that speaks of the history of the slave trade associated with Osu.  The book was written in an Agan style of writing, one full of interactive characters as well as figures of speech.  The reason being was that…

… Dr. Wellington wished that the book would be a “treasure book” rather than a “test book,” one that people would want to keep and put on their shelves.  Another reason being that when he was young his history teacher was rather boring and he wanted to convey history in an interesting way.

As our talk with Dr. Wellington progressed the question, asked jointly by Adja and Damon, “As young people how do we bridge the inequality between people and how can we physically achieve that?”  His answer was that he didn’t believe that there was any concrete structure that we had to follow but…

… the most important feature was discovery and it is through discovery that will produce change.

Following Dr. Wellington’s words, I implore you to discover; to discover past histories, the present, and even future territories; so that you as an individual can widen your grasp.  Who knows maybe change will follow.

………..May 26th – May 27th – Adja S.……….

writings and photos composed by adja sai

………..May 6th – May 27th – Ghana Studio 2012.……….